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Anti-materialism, capitalism, and violence against the human body: some preliminary comments

There are two kinds of on-going ‘attack’ on the materiality of the body (and nature) in capitalist society. One is a discursive attack, which is happening in some academic circles and which is inspired by post-structuralism. It treats what are deeply material entities/processes as more or less discursive constructions. Body (and nature) are generally equated to what is said and thought about them. Body is more a social-cultural construct than anything else.1 As Fox says: ‘In post-structuralism, texts and textuality became the object of inquiry, while the biological body appeared to recede beyond the analytical purview of the post-structuralist social scientist’.2 And then there is an actual, objectively-existing, material attack by capital and its state, on the body (and nature). This is the focus of my article. In the society under the rule of capital we live in, millions are going hungry and dying avoidable deaths. In this society where means of production and subsistence are monopolized by a small capitalist class, millions are suffering from avoidable diseases whether because they are crippled at work or because they do not have access to adequate food, housing or health-care. And, the humanity is experiencing massive forms of adverse environmental changes which are hurting the humanity bodily.

It is surprising that in spite of all these fundamentally material problems, discussions of the body (and nature) are treating them not as what they really are, but as what they essentially are not: discursive entities/processes. In capitalism, everything appears to be upside down. The discursive attack on the materiality of life on the part of a large number of scholars appears to complement the material attack on them. And the matter is especially grave when such discursive attack on the materiality of life occurs in the less developed world, where material problems are absolutely stark, thanks to the ‘under-developed’ character of peripheral capitalism and the onslaught of new imperialist mechanisms. How do we make sense of all this? How do we respond to the dual attack on the materiality of life?

Philosophy of the material

We have to start with the question of what the material really means? Philosophically, the material refers to what exists independently of the thinking mind. More substantively, the material refers to things—natural objects such as land and rivers. As Timpanaro explains, it also refers to the human body with its tendency to be sick and to die and to be happy and unhappy; this tendency exists because of certain nature-given mechanisms (physiological-neurological mechanisms) that are a condition for consciousness and action.3 The material also refers to a social process of the production of useful things through two kinds of objectively-existing relations: relations with natural objects, and relations among people, which mediate the former relation (Marx’s first thesis on Feuerbach speaks to this idea).

Thanks to the development of productive forces under capitalism, humans have interfered with the ways in which the body itself works (via surgical procedures, use of medicines, etc. which, it should be noted, are all material processes/things themselves). Humans have also interfered with the ways in which nature—external nature—itself works (arguably body is a part of nature). Natural objects (e.g. plants) governed by natural processes are being interfered with (mainly in pursuit of profit), a process which has also produced some benefits for the humanity, but which have also harmed the human body.

While all this is happening in the real world, and perhaps partly because of all this, the fact that there is something called natural is being increasingly under-emphasized, so much so that body (and nature) is equated to what is thought about, or done to, it. And to the extent that the existence of nature is noted, its materiality and its material effects on humans are often abstracted from (which is indicative of an idealistic thinking).4 Similarly, just because different people perceive their bodies in different ways and may make use of it differently (or even may transform their bodies physically in some ways to enjoy a certain form of sexuality, etc.), that does not mean the body is a purely or dominantly discursive thing. There has to be something independent of human thought and action for it to be thought about and acted on. There is ‘passivity of experience’, as Timpanaro (1980:34) calls it. There is no escape from it.

By materialism we understand above all acknowledgement of the priority of nature over ‘mind’, or if you like, of the physical level over the biological level, and of the biological level over the socio-economic and cultural level; both in the sense of chronological priority (the very long time which supervened before life appeared on earth, and between the origin of life and the origin of man), and in the sense of the conditioning which nature still exercises on man and will continue to exercise at least for the foreseeable future. Cognitively, therefore, the materialist maintains that experience cannot be reduced either to a production of reality by a subject (however such production is conceived) or to a reciprocal implication of subject and object. We cannot, in other words, deny or evade the element of passivity in experience: the external situation which we do not [for most part] create but which imposes itself on us (Timpanaro, 1980:34; parenthesis added).

There is a profound implication of all this. If something which is as material as body or nature can be de-materialised, it is easy to see why economic mechanisms under capitalism, which often act like blind natural forces behind our backs,5 are also under-emphasized, and why multiple forms of alienation people suffer from—including alienation from the effective control over resources—will not be given a serious attention. Consider the power of stock markets: the sorcerers—capitalists—themselves are powerless to control these creatures, and their underlying class relations. The discourses about the body, about nature, about the stock market, etc. absolutely matter. It is through those discourses that our interaction with these things happens. But what has more primacy? Is it the changes in the stock market that can lead to the loss of my job or is it how I or my colleagues or neighbours think about these changes? Is it not the case that the material-social conditions and ideas about them interact within a system in which the material-social conditions have an ultimate primacy? We have to eat and drink and have a shelter, and we engage in art, politics and religion, but that does not mean that there is no primacy here. It is important to be reminded of Engels’ statement:

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.

In seeking to meet its material (and other) needs, the humanity, which, in many ways, is a part of nature, transforms nature, by deploying its manual and mental labour, and. The humanity interferes with the ways in which the human body works. But being able to do something to our body or nature is mistakenly seen as denying that there is something irreducibly natural about the body and nature, and indeed about the humanity. Surely our relation with nature (as with our body) is mediated by our labour and language.6 But mediation does not and cannot imply erasure. The fact that the relation between X and Y is mediated by—influenced by—Z does not mean that X and Y are (almost) the same thing. The fact that we are able to fly does not mean that our bodies do not obey the natural law of gravity, and that being able to fly does not involve natural processes and mechanisms.

Underlying the ideas about so-called social nature(s) or about the discursive character of the body is a fundamental anti-materialism. Such an approach is anti-scientific and feeds into, at a general level, an approach that under-emphasizes and under-conceptualizes social-material aspects of our life (and especially, class relations/aspects). In some contexts, such anti-scientific, anti-materialist approach contributes to, and is a part of, the growing fascistic tendency in different parts of the world, including in India.7

Such under-emphasis/under-conceptualization is happening within so-called critical social science—whether critical human geography or critical sociology, etc.8 The burden of defending the materiality of life—and therefore the burden of defending a scientific approach to society and nature, falls on the shoulders of those who take materialism (and dialectics) seriously.9 That burden also requires a serious understanding of the workings of capitalism. How do the workings of capitalism affect the materiality of life?

Capitalist Production and the Materiality of Body: Re-articulation of Some Basic Insights from Capital, vol. 1

Capital engages in an attack on the materiality of body (and nature). Capital thus commits violence against the human body and nature, in the sense that such an attack on the materiality of body and nature is avoidable. Capital’s violence comes in three different forms.10 Symbolic violence is ‘embodied in language’ and imposed through ‘a certain universe of meaning’11. When the capitalist state sees or describes a union activist as being against national economic competitiveness, it is inflicting symbolic violence. Symbolic violence can, in turn, create a condition of existence for—makes acceptable—‘subjective violence’. This is the violence performed by ‘a clearly identifiable agent’.12 This agent can be the agent of the employers (their security agents or hired hoodlums). The systemic violence is the third form: it refers to the ‘catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems’.13 This is the violence that prompts the other two forms of violence. What is discussed in this section is this form of violence.

Capitalist production commits violence against body (and nature) in the sense that it physically damages its materiality. Of course, capital is, in many ways, characterized by ‘immateriality’: ‘So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond’ or in any such things.14 But capital is also a deeply material ‘thing’: use-values, without which exchange values will not exist, are ‘the material depositories of exchange value’.15 Use-values are use-values because of their sheer materiality: indeed, use-values exist because of the material properties (physical, chemical, geometrical, electrical, electro-magnetic, etc.) of objects. It is the physical body of the commodity which is the useful thing. Marx writes (1977:133): ‘Use- values like coats, linen, etc., in short, the physical bodies of commodities, are combinations of two elements, the material provided by nature, and labour.’ Both nature and the labour form the material body of capital. In its endless search for wealth in the abstract form capitalism requires the production of use-values. But the pursuit of exchange value also destroys/ damages the very materiality of use-values.

Capital hurts the human body by damaging nature, which is a condition for the human body, and it hurts the human body directly. Nature is to be seen in terms of raw-materials and as instruments of production (and indeed as a sink for waste). In an unceasing search for surplus value capital destroys/damages use values that come directly out of nature, or it transforms things from nature into forms (e.g. polluted water) which are not easily usable. By treating the environment as a free product and as a free sink and by taking more from nature than it gives, capital destroys/depletes the environment.16 Capital also destroys/damages the use-values in the form of labour-power which inheres in the labouring body (body-mind complex), and consequently inflicts bodily harm on the workers.

While Marx assumes that wages cover the cost of maintenance of the workers, he also says that in the real world millions of workers receive a wage which is not enough to live. Marx (1847) says in Wage labour and Capital: ‘Individual workers, indeed, millions of workers, do not receive enough to be able to exist and to propagate themselves’.17 Such a situation would constitute super-exploitation of workers. By underpaying the currently employed people and by putting people out of work, which means they are without money to buy what they need, capital creates a structural situation where people fail to meet their bodily needs, including need for food, housing, health-care and transportation. In fact, capital’s rule over labour in the workplace is most despotic: when day in and day out, capital forces labour to surrender to itself a large part of the wealth (profit) that labour produces, that is violence of the most insidious form, which leaves its physically visible mark on the body of labour.18 The body is indeed used as an accumulation strategy (Harvey, 1998).19 As Marx says in Capital vol. 1:20

As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one sole driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus-value, to make its constant part, the means of production [which come from nature, directly or not], absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour. Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the worker works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has bought from him.

Thousands of workers, including child workers, are subjected to beatings and other forms of violent abuse at work: violence against the body is visibly used in the hidden abode of production to extract more work. By forcing people to work long hours, to work with high intensity, to work in unsafe conditions, capital damages the working body. According to International Labour Organization (ILO):21

Every 15 seconds, a worker dies from a work-related accident or disease.

Every 15 seconds, 153 workers have a work-related accident.

Every day, 6,300 people die as a result of occupational accidents or work-related diseases—more than 2.3 million deaths per year. 317 million accidents occur on the job annually.

As Marx (1977:380) discusses in chapter 10 of Capital: Capitalist production is responsible for producing ‘generations of stunted, short-lived, rapidly replaced human beings’. Capital generally ‘takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker… Its answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of overwork, is this: should that pain trouble us, since it increases our pleasure (profit)?’ And, all this violence does not, however, happen because capitalists are necessarily bad people. The cause inheres in the objectively-existing system. As Marx says: all this violence against the human body: ‘does not depend on the will, either good or bad, of the individual capitalist. Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him’.22

Making workers work long hours is one of the most important ways in which capital damages the labouring body. If we assume a normal working life of, say, 30 years, and if due to overwork, a worker dies 20 years earlier than would otherwise be the case, the labourer gives to capital 30 years worth of work in only 10 years. But does capital pay three times the wage that she/he should normally pays? No, it does not. Capital literally takes people’s lives.

How capitalism inflicts violence can be better understood on the basis of Marx’s theory of the reserve army of labour. The rise in workers’ productivity driven by the logic of capital reduces the demand for labour, and this subjects those who are employed to sheer overwork.

If the means of production…become to a lesser extent means for employing workers, this relation is itself in turn modified by the fact that in proportion as the productivity of labour increases, capital increases its supply of labour more quickly than its demand for workers. The over-work of the employed part of the working-class swells the ranks of its reserve, whilst, conversely, the greater pressure that the reserve by its competition exerts on the employed workers, forces them to submit to overwork and subjects them to the dictates of capital (Marx, 1977:789).

Alienation at work and in broader society combined with under-employment and unemployment and lack of adequate living standards and health-care, are leading to major mental health issues which themselves represent a form of violence of capital against the body-mind complex. It is also the case that many people suffering from alienation and mental health problems kill others and kill themselves.

Capitalism requires unceasing accumulation, which requires expansion of production of commodities, even if they are harmful. Workers as consumers meet the destructive effects of capital when they die consuming unsafe things (including tobacco; adulterated food and drinks) produced by capital for a (super) profit, often in violation of existing rules. Capital knows that any penalty that it may have to pay is a fraction of the super profit made from commodity production and sale. Capital considers any penalty as a normal cost of doing business.

The capitalist system itself has given humanity the power to lengthen life: people indeed live longer than in pre-capitalist times. Yet, not only is it the case that capital kills/maims millions in various ways in pursuit of profit but it is also the case that how long and how well one lives (i.e. whether one’s material needs are satisfied) depends, largely, on one’s socio-economic background which is broadly structured by the ways in which capitalist economic system and the capitalist state function. A low-income manual laborer will live several years fewer than a well-off person. The sum total of years that people in the world could live, given the availability of technology, but are not living longer, is representative of the destruction of a big chunk of life of the global humanity. And they are not living longer because in a society where nearly everything is produced for sale for profit, they do not have proper access to what it takes to live longer. If we consider the differences in quality of life including people’s ability to be productive and enjoy a good health (for example, what a child of a manual labourer or a small-scale peasant who is likely to regularly fall sick is able to achieve in life as opposed to her better-off peer with much better opportunities in life), the amount of suffering and wastage of resources that masses experience in their entire life at the global level constitute an enormous amount violence.23 This violence is particularly stark in the poverty-stricken global periphery and in places in the imperialist countries inhabited by racially oppressed groups or immigrants from low-income, working class background.

In terms of use-values, which are the material bearers of exchange values, the contradiction of capitalism is precisely this: as a social relation, capital requires, and relies on, the materiality of the labouring body (and nature). At the same time capital as a social power physically destroys/damages that materiality. Often the process of destroying/damaging is a combined (if uneven) process: capitalism not only destroys the labouring body and nature separately and together; it is also the case that when the environment is damaged in a place, that directly affects the labouring body in that place. This is the case whether or not a person is directly engaged in the production site responsible for the damage to the environment (for example, pollution caused by capitalist factories affects the health of people working in those factories and of those who do not). Storms and heat strokes, and similar other extreme weather events caused by capitalism-induced climate change directly affect the physical body of the proletarians and semi-proletarians (more than that of other sections of the population). While natural calamities (e.g. earthquakes, etc.) will happen in any society, thousands of deaths happen because the social conditions under which people live (e.g. poor quality housing lacking ability to withstand the impact of natural disasters) and/or because affected people do not have access to adequate and quick help (every penny spent on ordinary people is potentially a penny lost from the capitalist pocket).

Capitalistic violence is not to be seen as restricted to the work-place. That is, it is not just an effect of productive consumption of the labour power as a use-value. It should be underlined that technological change itself is not the cause of violence: technology, by enhancing labour productivity in the workplace, becomes a means to increase surplus value in its relative form. The violence—the material/physical damage that capital causes to body and nature, must be seen as being caused by the operation of the entire system of capitalism and by the more concrete effects of its operation, and not just the process of production.

When self-employed workers (small-scale owners, including in the aboriginal communities) resist their full-scale dispossession, they face violence. The history of expropriation of small-scale owners—history of negation of small-scale private property—‘is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire’. Indeed ‘capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt’. Marx adds in Capital, vol. 1:24

The transformation of scattered private property resting on the personal labour of the individual themselves into capitalist private property is naturally [a]…protracted, violent, and difficult process…

Violent processes of dispossession of the small-scale producer are an ongoing affair.

Although capitalism’s relation is particularly antagonistic towards the body of wage-labour, capitalism is also antagonistic towards the body of the small-scale producer, i.e. the private property owner whose property is based on his/her own/family labour, including female labour. Subjecting that private property owner to the law of value, capital forces him/her to self-exploit and over-work and to ignore the needs of material reproduction of their body, and this has particular implications for the women, who are burdened with work at home and on the farm or in the small enterprise and who have to ignore their bodily needs to help reproduce the entire family. In India, millions of cultivators are driven to committing suicide, because they are not able to pay their bills (as they are crushed under the logic of value and rules of competition in a market dominated by big businesses which control prices of major inputs). Farm workers also commit suicide because wages are too low and therefore they cannot meet their financial needs. In India, a farm-dependent person commits suicide every half an hour. Between 1995 and 2016, more than 330,000 villagers (farmer-cultivators and workers) have committed suicide. This is the violence of the capitalist system against the small-scale owner and the rural worker.

The same logic of value can also force the small-scale property owner to destroy/damage the physical environment (e.g. agricultural fields or mines) in order to cut costs and produce commodities whose value must be as close to the social value as possible, in an increasingly globally competitive environment.

Capitalism, the state, and violence against the human body

Capitalism will not survive without the capitalist state. Capital and the state must be seen as two arms of capitalism as a form of class relation in that exploitation of the masses by capital and subordination of the needs of society to the logic of profit- making, will not exist without the state.25 The state connects to capitalism at the level of property relations and at the level of accumulation. It protects capitalist property relations: it defends the power of capital to extract surplus value, to dispossess small-scale producers, and to extract rent and interest from the direct producers. But it is not enough to protect/defend the right to appropriate value from direct producers: capitalists will not be ‘happy’ to merely have their property rights protected if they cannot increase their wealth, including in the form of value extracted from labour. Capitalism is like a bicycle, which falls if it fails to be in motion. In addition to defending capitalist property rights, the state must contribute to capitalist accumulation, which involves a) accumulation by exploitation of labour, and b) accumulation by dispossession of (smaller-scale) property-owners. Now, the ways in which the state defends capitalist property rights and contributes to capitalist accumulation, create conditions for violence. Not surprisingly, Lenin, in his State and Revolution, describes the state as a special coercive force, a force that belongs to the exploiting classes and is used against the exploited classes. People encounter violence in the sphere of politics in capitalist society. This comes in many forms.

For a start, exploitation of wage-workers and dispossession of small-scale producers (primitive accumulation) inevitably meet with resistance from the masses, and such resistance meets with violence from the state. When people fight for better conditions and against exploitation and social oppression, they meet with retaliation from the capitalist state, including being sent to jail. The Maruti workers’ struggle in India is a clear testimony to this.26 When workers become class conscious and fight to overthrow capitalism, they do and will certainly encounter the wrath of capital and its state. With the help of the state, capital often uses the lumpen proletariat it itself creates—those who are irregularly employed—to physically hurt the currently employed workers if they engage in what are industrial or political ‘troubles’ that, according to capital, undermine the free market and the smooth functioning of the state. When masses participate in the electoral process to choose leaders who are slightly progressive, they often meet with violence if they exercise their right in ways that certain powerful representatives of capital do not approve of, especially in under-developed societies, and the state is complicit in that violence.

Marx’s theory of the commodity is useful in shedding light on the capitalist state’s violence against people. When the capitalist state, whether it comes in a democratic form or not, makes use of violent methods against the masses, such violence is often not seen as what it is—namely, suppression of the masses by a class-state acting on behalf of dominant class interests in plundering nature, small-scale producers and (super-)exploiting workers—but rather as what it appears to be.27 That is, violence by the capitalist state is seen as wrongful action carried out either by this or that political party in furtherance of an incorrect policy, or by officials/politicians who are misinformed as to what is really required. A corollary is that such agency by the state is in effect mistaken as an anomaly that can be rectified by changing the party in power, its leadership, or bureaucrats and officials carrying out the orders.28 Similarly, what actually is a coercive and violent relation between classes, enforced by the capitalist state, is mistakenly seen as a relation between voters/citizens on the one hand and parties, political leaders, and officials on the other. This is a relation that cannot be eliminated until the state is directly and socially regulated, in much the same way as commodity fetishism, as Rubin says,29 cannot be removed until labour-power is directly and socially regulated.

Capitalism is based on competition, which takes place not only within countries but also across countries (there are fractions of global capital that are rooted in particular nation-state-controlled territories and which make use of particular nation-states). A fundamental contradiction is between the global form of capital (internationalization of capitalist accumulation and markets) and nation-state based political character of capitalism. The conflict between capitalism’s international character and its nation-state system is often resolved through wars, big and small. It is through the wars or the threat of wars that powerful countries maintain control over the resources of poorer countries. Wars kills ordinary people: thousands of people from low-income and working class and peasant backgrounds join the military because that is the only way in which they can pay for their education or support their children and non-working parents.

When workers and other oppressed groups seek to escape a country/region because of poverty and economic backwardness caused by capitalism, many are subjected to violent methods in the hands of the police or military at the national borders. Thousands of people desperate to escape from brutal conditions die in the sea or on long road journeys.

The fact that the capitalist state can use sheer violence against direct producers that resist exploitation and dispossession that go on in capitalist society, is not enough. To weaken the power of the masses, they must be divided. In fact, disorganization of the masses is a fundamental objective of the state. Capitalism reproduces, and makes use of, processes of social oppression based on race, gender, caste, religion, etc., to divide the masses on the basis of these identities. To the extent that agents of the state (officials and leaders of political parties) make use of these identities to conduct their activities and mobilize electoral support, the state is complicit in social oppression (we have all heard of racist state, casteist state, patriarchal state, etc.). Now, social oppression is manifested not just in terms of stigma and discrimination. It is as well expressed materially, i.e. in the form of attacks on the body. Consider how upper caste people make ex-untouchables drink urine and beat them up in many places in India, and the state takes no action. If a woman fails to bring enough dowry at the time of marriage, she is subjected to physical abuse, and in some cases, bride-burning has been reported. Religious minorities have been subjected to attacks as well: in India, if a Muslim is suspected of eating beef, he/she is lynched by Hindu fanatics, who have felt energized thanks to a right-wing Hindu nationalist government installed with the direct help and consent of sections of the big business and of the petty-bourgeoisie. In fact, if fascism is one method of the bourgeois class to reproduce the conditions of profit-making in a crisis situation, and to keep its control over the state, fascistic politics is inevitably expressed in the direct physical attack on the exploited masses and on those who oppose it.30 Such an attack urgently demands a counter-response that is intellectual and political and that also requires organized workers, small-scale producers and intellectuals directly stopping such fascistic violence on the street. Stopping the violence against the body from fascistic forces must be a part of the fight for democratic norms.


Praised for being a highly productive system, capitalism is an immensely destructive system as well. It is destructive not just in the sense of the cyclical devaluation of exchange values (as happens during an economic crisis). It is also the case that capitalism materially—physically—destroys ‘its own body’, i.e. labouring body and nature, which are the twin sources of wealth that is converted into its capitalist form. It is as if capital suffers from an auto-immune disease. This disease is expressed in the form of various types of environmental problems, which have adverse effects on the human body. And this disease is expressed in the form of the damage to the human body caused by the despotic and exploitative ways in which labour power as a use value is productively consumed by capital. What capital destroys is not any discourse about the body and nature, although certain discourses about body and nature are fully utilized by capital in its own interest. What capital destroys is much rather the very materiality of the body and nature. Considering all these in totality, it is difficult not to conclude that the landscape of capitalism is a death field, a killing field, a field of violence against the human body, the labouring and the living body.

While wage-workers and small-scale producers have a right to a decent life and a safe environment, capital has a right to make money (wealth in its most abstract form). Between these two equal rights, it is ultimately the force that decides. And as long as capital and its state rule, it is the force of capital and its state that works. This is where the violent character of capital comes from at an abstract level.

It is not just the history of capital that is violent, as the story of primitive accumulation shows. Capitalism continues to be a violent affair, and capital’s violence is, in the language of Bertell Ollman,31 an ‘internal relation’ of capital. The tendency towards violent destruction of things is inherent in capitalism; its concrete manifestations and intensity may change from one time and context to another. Capital causes damage to nature and to the human body. Causes of such physical damage are in the sphere of production. The causes are also outside of production. The causes are in the economic and political spheres. To recognize that capital causes damage to body (or body-mind complex) and to nature, one must accept that there is something profoundly materialist about body and nature, and that capitalism is an objectively-existing system (and not a mental construct). Treating body and nature, and by implication, treating the economic sphere (which is also an ensemble of material relations) as discursive products, does violence to the objective reality of violence inflicted by capital and its state. To the extent that a given kind of thinking can be a material force when many people believe in it, a small step in the process of stopping capital’s violence is to stop thinking that body and nature are (merely or mainly) discursive things.


  1. This short article is in part a response to an intellectual trend on the academic Left. Yet, it does not to single out individual scholars or texts for scrutiny. Instead, it briefly outlines a positive Marxist perspective on the materiality of life, and on violence against the human life under capitalism, from the vantage point of political economy and class relations. For a critical review of some of the literature that treats the body from a culturalist angle, see Fox, 2016. ‘Health sociology from post-structuralism to the new materialisms’, Health, 20:1, 62-74.
  2. Fox, 2016, pp. 67
  3. Timpanaro, S. 1980. On Materialism, Verso, London. See also the work of the neuro-scientist, Richard Davidson: Davidson, R. 2002. The emotional life of your brain, Hudson Street Press, London.
  4. For a sample of this literature, see Castree, N. and Braun, B. 2001. Social Nature: Theory, Practice and Politics, Oxford: Blackwell.
  5. We may recall that Marx (1977: 92) says in his preface to the first German edition of Capital Vol. 1, in his work ‘the development of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history’.
  6. And note that both our ability to perform labour and speak a language is deeply rooted in specific physical/biological mechanisms and is therefore a social process not un-connected to nature.
  7. Obscurantist ideas, the ideas that have not been proved by science, such as the following are being propagated by many right-wing political leaders in India with the full support of a fascistic organization: keeping certain idols in front of the house can protect people from evil powers; the concoction of cow’s milk, curd, ghee, cow-dung and cow-urine has good health effects and that the cow, widely regarded by Hindus as sacred, is the only animal that breaths out oxygen; ancient India practiced cosmetic surgery and genetic engineering, and so on (Trivedi, 2017). Trivedi, D. 2017. ‘In defense of science’, Frontline. September 15.
  8. Das, R. J. 2014. A Contribution to the Critique of Contemporary Capitalism: Theoretical and International Perspectives, Nova Science Publishers, New York. ISBN: 978-1-63117-559-6.
  9. And they include scientists, as Lenin makes clear in his ‘On the significance of militant materialism,’ Marxist Internet Archive.
  10. Zizek, S. 2008. Violence, Picador, New York
  11. Zizek, pp. 1-2.
  12. Zizek, pp. 1, 10.
  13. Zizek, p. 2.
  14. Marx, K., Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1977) pp. 177
  15. ibid.: pp. 126.
  16. See the work by Foster, John Bellamy and by Paul Burkett, Marx and nature (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999); Foster, J.B. 1995. ‘Marx and the environment,’ Monthly Review, 47(3), 108-123.
  17. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch04.htm
  18. Fracchia, J. 2008. ‘The Capitalist Labour-Process and the Body in Pain: The Corporeal Depths of Marx’s Concept of Immiseration’, Historical Materialism, 16(4), pp. 35-66.
  19. Harvey, D. 1998. ‘The Body as an Accumulation Strategy’, Environment and Planning D, Vol. 16:4, 401-421
  20. Marx, 1977:342; italics added.
  21. ILO, ‘Decent work and the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development: Safety and health at work,’ accessed February 2018.
  22. Marx, 1977, pp. 380.
  23. This points to the fact that social relations of capitalism are the biggest fetter on the development of the productive forces, the most important of which is the human laboring body.
  24. Marx, 1977, pp. 929.
  25. Das, R. 2017. Marxist class theory for a skeptical world, Brill, Leiden.
  26. Krishnan, K. 2017. ‘India: Why are Suzuki automobile workers in jail?’, Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal. http://links.org.au/india-why-are-suzuki-automobile-workers-in-jail
  27. Das, 2007:419. Das, R. J. 2007. ‘Looking, but not seeing: The state and/as class in rural India’, Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 34:3,408-440
  28. This is akin to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism.
  29. Rubin, I. 1973. Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, Montreal: Blackrose Books.
  30. ‘The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery’ (Trotsky, L. 1944. Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It, Marxist Internet Archive).
  31. Ollman, B. 2003. Dance of the dialectics: Steps in Marx’s method, University of Illinois Press, Urbana-Champaign.